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What’s that smell? 8 Reasons for a foul-smelling HVAC system

Most of the time, your air conditioning unit shouldn’t give off an odor. Its prime function is to control the temperature of the air. It is crucial to understand the common, and not so common, odors that can permeate from your HVAC unit. Should you notice an odor anywhere in your home, these signs will help you distinguish the cause and determine if it’s serious enough for immediate professional attention.

Oily Odors

Oily odors can indicate a range of issues such as a leaky or malfunctioning tank. If you notice a puddle or leak next to the tank or if you notice an odor but no puddle, the oil tank might be clogged or you may have a bad fuel pump. Sometimes it’s as little as a tear in the installation foam. Should you notice an oily scent throughout your home, you will need to call the contractors who performed the installation.

Rotten Egg

This very distinct odor demands immediate attention because this usually means that you have a natural gas leak. Natural gas an odor-less and to alert homeowners of potential health risks, the utility companies install a potent ‘odor alarm’ that emits a smell similar to rotting eggs. Should you notice this odor, open all of the windows in your home, get out of the house immediately and contact your gas company.

Electrical Odor

Older AC units or filters that need cleaning will generally omit an electrical odor. If you notice a burning/electric scent from your AC unit, unplug it before diagnosing the problem. Check the air filter and clean it thoroughly if needed. Clogged or dirty filters can build up and restrict airflow, causing the AC unit to overheat. If the problem has no relation to the air filter, do not attempt to fix it. A technician should be notified to fix any electric-related issues.


A musty, moldy, or mildew scent can be pretty intense and will usually indicate excessive condensation within the unit. This is usually causes moisture build-up because of improper draining. Don’t wait too long for a technician to relieve the issue. If left unattended, your risk for respiratory ailments and health related issues may increase.

Raw Sewage

The scent of raw sewage may also be indicative of a gas leak as well. A ruptured sewer vent or pipe is likely the cause of such a smell. This will leak methane gas into the ductwork and permeate an odor similar to human waste. Again, gas leaks can quickly become serious if left unattended and should be dealt with right away.

Gun Powder

No, your senses aren’t playing tricks; you do smell a faint scent of gun powder. When your AC unit kicks on and you notice this smell as it circulates, you may have a short circuit within your unit. A technician can detect the short and replace the circuitry where needed.

Skunk Scent

Pepe Le Pew may be roaming about your home…or it could be another odor to alert you of a gas leak. This particular smell would be circulating around the ductwork and is very similar to the spray of a skunk. Again, gas leaks are no joke, and should be handled by a technician immediately.

Dirty Sock Syndrome

If it’s not laundry day, you may have another problem on your hands. Experiencing the scent of dirty socks or laundry could mean that the coils are probably to blame. When you turn on your AC unit and that first couple of seconds omits this odor, chances are that you’re not getting adequate filtration through your system. This scent happens when heat and moisture build-up and should be taken care of immediately to prevent health issues.

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